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Raven Crime Reads

Criminally good reads…

November (and October!) 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well, hello everyone- lovely to see you!

Having just realised that I completely neglected to post a round-up in October, for reasons far too wearisome to go into here, so someone has missed out on the accolade for October’s Book of the Month. That will be rectified forthwith! Still getting to grips with my work/life balance, so despite reading loads thanks to my bus commute, haven’t quite got a handle on finding time to review them all. It’ll sort itself out soon…promise. However, an upside to my new regimen is more time to tackle that TBR pile, and it’s been nice to read books that have been languishing on my shelves for far too long. More of these to come.

So let’s get down to business and bring this blog up to date, as December is with us, and Raven’s Top 5 of the year is on the horizon. Serious stuff which needs to be thought about carefully…in other words, how on earth is this year of stellar reading going to be whittled down to just 5 favourites. Hmmm…..

Have a good month, and just remember that most sensible people would love to be bought a shiny new papery book from your local bookshop for their Christmas stocking!

Raven’s Book of the Month- October

birdAgnes Ravatn- The Bird Tribunal

Samuel Bjork- I’m Travelling Alone

Helen Cadbury- To Catch A Rabbit

Owen Sheers-I Saw A Man

Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil

Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel

Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

Raven’s Book of the Month- November

gaylinDoug Johnstone- Crash Land

Mark Hill- The Two O’Clock Boy

A. D. Garrett- Truth Will Out

Nuala Ellwood- My Sister’s Bones

Eva Dolan- Long Way Home

Davide Longo- Bramard’s Case

Pascal Garnier- The Eskimo Solution

                                    Frederic Dard- Crush

                                                A. L. Gaylin- What Remains of Me

 

#BlogTour- A. L. Gaylin- What Remains of Me

gaylinJune 1980: 17-year-old Kelly Lund is jailed for killing Hollywood film director, John McFadden Thirty years later, Kelly is a free woman. Yet speculation still swirls over what really happened that night. And when her father-in law, and close friend of McFadden is found dead – shot through the head at point-blank range – there can only be one suspect. But this time Kelly has some high-profile friends who believe she’s innocent of both crimes…

Being a fan of contemporary American crime fiction, and particularly those featuring ‘damaged’ female protagonists, such as Jax Miller’s Freedom’s Child and Emma Cline’s The Girls , I’m incredibly pleased to report that the trinity is now complete with this truly compelling novel from A.L. Gaylin, What Remains of Me.

Front and centre of this tale of redemption, revenge and murder, is the figure of Kelly Lund, convicted of murder at a young age, but now having served 25 years for the crime, still battling with her readjustment to life on the outside. Lund is a powerfully constructed and multi-faceted character who gets under your skin, and toys with your empathy as the tale unfolds. Her naivety as a seventeen year old girl, finding herself enveloped in the starry world of Hollywood and its nefarious temptations, is beautifully balanced with our view of her post-incarceration, and the damage this has wreaked on her emotional make-up. The barren emotion and dark shadows of her marriage is set against the frail and tentative emotional connection she makes with her neighbour Rocky, as she struggles with her past actions coming to impact on her new life. I found the lines drawn between the teenage and adult Lund with those connected to her past and present lives, with some particularly nasty skeletons emerging from the closet, were never less than utterly believable, and emotionally engaging throughout. The frailty and imperfections of Lund, as she seeks to make sense of the deeds attributed to her, drive the plot on, and her surrounding cast of characters, and their own failings both in their actions towards her, and their own pernicious acts are constantly surprising, and sometimes deeply disturbing. Gaylin’s fearless and uncompromising eye on the world of celebrity, and those that grow up in its shadow with their attendant emotional problems, is crucial to the playing out of this twisted tale, and grips the reader as our alliances to the main players shifts and changes.

What I liked most about this book is the control of pace and reveal that Gaylin uses, echoing the central theme of the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood crowd, who lie at the centre of the book. There is a real sense of zoom and focal adjustment, as Gaylin seems to anticipate perfectly how closely to bring the reveals into focus, and when to leave the reader hanging slightly by pulling away from certain story strands at exactly the right time. and then bam, another twist socks you right in the kisser.

Equally, Gaylin’s description of location, offsetting the glamourous Hollywood world of Lund’s teenage cohorts, against her new existence in the barren desert flats is beautifully realised, and providing another surreptitious reference to the morally bankrupt excesses of the movie fraternity, against the cleaner moral life of frugality, and engagement with the natural world. There is also a wonderfully dispassionate style to Gaylin’s writing, so it feels that the moments of revelation and emotional intensity are slightly dampened down, to add to the overarching feeling of sadness that permeates the story. In this way, the book exhibits the twin attributes of a nod to the best of hardboiled noir, fused with the emotional sparseness and literary prowess of contemporary American fiction.

So with its blend of strong characterisation, assured plotting, attention to location, and moral ambiguity, What Remains of Me, ticked every single box for this reader. It loitered in my head for some while after finishing it, and that for me is further testament to how good it was. No hesitation in the Raven’s mind that this is one highly recommended read. Excellent.

 

 

gaylin

PRAISE FOR WHAT REMAINS OF ME
‘Completely absorbing with a knock-out twist’ – Harlan Coben
‘You’ll stay up late to read this’ – Laura Lippmann
‘Full of crackling energy and heartache’ – Megan Abbott
‘An exceptional book by an exceptional writer. Gaylin is an expert at acute emotional observation combined with seamless plotting. I adored this book.’  – Alex Marwood
 
 

A. L. Gaylin’s first job was as a reporter for a celebrity tabloid, which sparked a lifelong interest in writing about people committing despicable acts. More than a decade later, she wrote and published her Edgar-nominated first novel, Hide Your Eyes.
 
She’s since published eight more books, including the USA Today and international bestselling Brenna Spector suspense series, which has been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Thriller awards and won the Shamus awards. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, daughter, cat and dog

(With thanks to Arrow Books for the ARC)

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Travels with the TBR #2- Eva Dolan- Long Way Home, Davide Longo- Bramard’s Case, Pascal Garnier- The Eskimo Solution, Frederic Dard- Crush

Somehow,  I don’t think I’m making great in-roads into the 100+ books in the TBR pile, but here’s another selection of books that had been woefully ignored. Hope you find something you like…

 

evaA man is burnt alive in a shed.
No witnesses, no fingerprints – only a positive ID of the victim as an immigrant with a long list of enemies.

Detectives Zigic and Ferreira are called in from the Hate Crimes Unit to track the killer, and are met with silence in a Fenland community ruled by slum racketeers, people-trafficking gangs and fear.
Tensions rise. The clock is ticking. But nobody wants to talk.

Although written pre-Brexit, it has taken me so long to read Dolan, that this book proves an even more powerful read in the wake of recent political tumult in the UK. What I liked so much about this one, is how Dolan so assuredly balances the stoicism and welcoming nature of some to the immigration issue, and the inflammatory and deluded beliefs of others, whilst coolly reflecting the never less than easy day to day existence of those that have sought to assimilate themselves into British society, legally or illegally. From the non-native backgrounds of her main police characters, Zigic and Ferreira, to the perpetrators and victims of the crimes committed, the book paints a vivid and realistic portrayal of the cultural melting pot that is Britain today, and the plot is well-paced, and satisfyingly twisty throughout. An intriguing and less than easy investigation leads to an excellent first of a series, and being quite taken with the two main police protagonists, this is a series that I will catch up with as soon as possible. Highly recommended.

bramardOnce a year, Corso Bramard receives a message from the man who destroyed his life.

He left the police after a serial killer he was tracking murdered his wife and daughter, but fifteen years later he is still taunted by his old adversary. Mocking letters arrive at his home outside Turin, always from a different country, always typed on the same 1972 Olivetti. But this time the killer may have gone too far. A hair left in the envelope of his latest letter provides a vital clue.

Bramard is a teacher now – no gun, no badge, just a score to settle. Isa, an academy graduate whose talent just about outweighs her attitude is assigned to fight his corner. They’re a mismatched team, but if they work together they have a chance to unmask the killer before he strikes again – and to uncover a devastating secret that will cut Corso Barmard to the bone.

A wonderfully downbeat and introspective Italian set crime novel, far more reminiscent of the style of a Raven favourite, Valerio Varesi, than the more colourful and bitingly humorous Andrea Camilleri. This is a real slow burner, so don’t expect a thrilling pace, but instead be lulled by the existential musing, and real soul searching that Bramard asks of himself throughout the book. His interaction with the keen, but less experienced Isa, works beautifully during the course of this tricky investigation, that is so laden with the echoes of dark times in Bramard’s past. Literary crime fiction infused with sadness, that I positively loved. Recommended.

41qpbyzkial-_sx321_bo1204203200_A crime writer uses the modest advance on his latest novel to rent a house on the Normandy coast. There should be little to distract him from his work besides walks on the windswept beach, but as he begins to tell the tale of forty-something Louis who, after dispatching his own mother, goes on to relieve others of their burdensome elderly relations events in his own life begin to overlap with the work of his imagination…

Regular readers of my blog know all too well my deep affection for the work of the late lamented Pascal Garnier, so it will come as no surprise that this is another winner. Cleverly, and in the space of only 159 pages, Garnier weaves together the story in real time, and the book that is being written by the crime writer, constantly shifting your attention between the two. I liked the fictional tale incorporated within the other fictional tale, if you get my drift, and was almost tempted to write another review of that one too. In his trademark style, both stories deal with sex, death, greed, passion, and murder, and dig down to the nastiest aspects of the human psyche, with black humour and mordant wit. Genius.

dard

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine. When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

A chilling and psychologically dark Fifties tale of suspense of jealousy and murder, that is trademark Frederic Dard from stsart to finish. His depiction of the naivety and gaucheness of Louise, is never less than perfectly realised, as she inveigles herself in the life of the glamorous but tormented couple, the Roolands. In a relatively short novel, Dard ratchets up both the suspense, and depth of character with some lighter vignettes featuring Louise’s awful relatives too. You know you are being led on a path of self destruction from early on, and as you view the self combustion of the characters, you almost feel guilty for watching. Wasn’t entirely convinced by the abruptness, and rather unfinished feel of the ending, but time spent with Dard is never entirely wasted, as the rest of this dark tale testifies. Recommended.

(With thanks to Maclehose, Pushkin and Gallic Press for the ARCs. I bought a copy of Long Way Home)

Blog Tour- Nuala Ellwood- My Sister’s Bones

 

msbblogtour_nov18Kate Rafter is a successful war reporter. She’s the strong one. The one who escaped Herne Bay and the memories it holds. Her sister Sally didn’t. Instead, she drinks.

But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return to the old family home. And on her first night she is woken by a terrifying scream.

What secret has Kate stumbled upon?
And is she strong enough to uncover the truth . . . and make it out alive?

As much as I seek to actively avoid thrillers with the merest whiff of domestic noir about them, I was intrigued to read My Sister’s Bones, a debut psychological thriller by Nuala Ellwood with its blend of emotional domesticity combined with more global concerns. Effectively marrying the usual tropes of domestic noir and familial conflict, with more salient humanitarian issues,  Ellwood has produced a thriller that is a curious blend of the intensely satisfying and the slightly frustrating…

The absolute lynchpin for my enjoyment of this book was Kate’s story, a seasoned war reporter who on her return from war-torn Aleppo in Syria, is battling the twin demons of PTSD and personal emotional stress caused by the death of her mother, and the non-connectedness to her sister Sally who is in the grip of alcoholism, and suffering personal distress at the disappearance of her daughter, Hannah. Reflecting my enjoyment of other thrillers such as Matthew Frank’s If I Should Die, and Kate Medina’s Fire Damage, which also explored the realm of PTSD, I found Ellwood’s portrayal of Kate, so emotionally affected by her horrific experiences in Syria, utterly authentic, bolstered no doubt by the author’s own familial links to the world of war reporting. Her confusion, anger and twisted sense of self worth and guilt was heart-breaking and emotional throughout, really tapping into the reader’s empathy, and depicting perfectly one woman’s personal experience of war. I also admired the clear-headed, objective portrayal of the Syrian conflict exhibited by the author, and its balanced and unflinching tone when describing the danger and human devastation that Kate experiences holed up in this war torn city. I liked the way that we as readers are drawn in and out of states of mistrust towards Kate, due to the symptoms of her stress, constantly questioning her veracity as a reliable narrator, and a credible witness to what she believes is happening in the house next door. Her story and actions totally carries the thrust of the book, and without giving anything away I was a little worried that her story had been too swiftly curtailed to carry my interest to the end.

More frustrating for me, was the close to home aspect of the story, where Kate finds herself immersed in the suspicious goings-on of her next door neighbour, and the grand reveal of how this relates to the travails of her alienated sister, Sally. Again, I think Ellwood, is spot on with the characterisation of Sally, fighting a battle with alcoholism, and the conflicting states of mind and self-awareness that this terrible addiction causes to those in its grip. Her experience was never less than utterly believable and affecting. However, I did find the central plot of the book a little weak, and far-fetched to totally draw me in, and the denouement was just a tad too fanciful to entirely convince this reader. Such is the strength of Ellwood’s writing in terms of human experience, that I wondered with the blips in the central plotting, if crime fiction was the right avenue to go down. With her undeniable knack for portraying the weaknesses and strengths of her female characters, I would happily have read this a contemporary fiction novel examining the condition of war and its impact on human relationships, drawing on the issues of PTSD, familial isolation and alcohol addiction.

So, all in all, a bit of a mixed bag for this reader, who didn’t really appreciate the ‘crime’ aspect of the book so much,  but with exhibiting such strong characterisation in the protagonists of Kate and Sally themselves, had enough to keep me reading on. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

 

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Blog Tour- A. D. Garrett- Truth Will Out (Simms/Fennimore #3)

 

TruthWillOutGIF-64coloursA mother and daughter are snatched on their drive home from a cinema. The crime has a number of chilling similarities to a cold case Professor Nick Fennimore had been lecturing on. Then Fennimore begins receiving taunting messages – is he being targeted by the kidnapper?

Meanwhile, a photograph emailed from Paris could bring Fennimore closer to discovering the fate of Suzie, his own daughter, now missing for six years. He seeks help from his old friend, DCI Kate Simms, recently returned from the US. But Kate is soon blocked from the investigation… A mother and child’s lives hang in the balance as Fennimore and Simms try to break through police bureaucracy to identify their abductor…

Truth Will Out is the third of A. D. Garrett’s series featuring DCI Kate Simms and forensic psychologist Professor Nick Fennimore, their particular disciplines reflecting the expertise of their co-creators, accomplished crime writer Margaret Murphy, and policing and forensics expert, Helen Pepper. Following, Everyone Lies, and Believe No One, things are going to get particularly troublesome for Simms and Fennimore as this gruelling investigation takes its toll…

Using the abduction of a woman and her young daughter, as the central hook, Garrett cleverly links this to the on-going mystery of the violent events in Fennimore’s past, with the unexplained disappearance of his wife and daughter some years previously. My usual caveat applies that entering the series at this later point is not an issue, as all the back story is clear and concise, and despite a hiatus in my own reading of the series catching up was easy to do. With both Simms and Fennimore back on home soil, after their Stateside exploits, they once again find themselves, striving to properly solve the current case, but as usual, in Simms case, defying their superiors, and finding their personal lives and professional relationships sorely tested. For me, one of the stand out features of these books is the shifting parameters of the relationship between the two main protagonists, feeding on or fuelling the other’s particular weaknesses and strengths. Aiming to avoid spoilers, I will say that their relationship has undergone a series of shifts through the books, but in this book, the solidity of their working relationship and friendship is tested to the limit, as Fennimore embarks on some less than legal action to track down his daughter, and Simms pushes the boundaries of her involvement in the central investigation. Both Simms and Fennimore are highly intelligent but prone to a little too much introspection and self-questioning, and I like the way that Garrett explores the particular flaws and insecurities in their characters. Indeed, one of the central enjoyments of crime fiction reading is having your good guys a little tarnished, and both these protagonists fit the bill perfectly.

The plot is as you’d expect of a linear investigation into a highly emotive abduction, but heightened by the very real connection to the travails of Fennimore’s past, and cut through with authentic and eye-opening forensic detail. I was a little less than enamoured with the abduction storyline concerning Julia and Lauren Myers, but appreciated its necessity in drawing in Fennimore to the case, and the abductor baiting him. As Fennimore’s involvement in the case becomes more ingrained, some ghosts from the past are put to rest, and it will be interesting to see how Fennimore and Simms’ relationship develops in possible future books. However, my interest was firmly held throughout by the unexpected tangent concerning one of Fennimore’s students, which took the story off on a thorny and violent diversion, with an emotive conclusion, and having proved itself an interesting offshoot to the main plot itself. Once again, this addition to the series, Truth Will Out, is never less than a procedurally and forensically accurate thriller, held together by the unique and mercurial relationship of its two main characters. I must confess, not my favourite of the series to date but, intrigued that having had a central mystery solved, what lies ahead for Fennimore and Simms in the future. Recommended.

everyone-lies-200pxEveryone Lies (Simms/Fennimore Book #1)

DCI Kate Simms is on the fast track to nowhere. Five years ago she helped a colleague when she shouldn’t have. She’s been clawing her way back from a demotion ever since. Professor Nick Fennimore is a failed genetics student, successful gambler, betting agent, crime scene officer, chemistry graduate, toxicology specialist and one-time scientific advisor to the National Crime Faculty. He is the best there is, but ever since his wife and daughter disappeared he’s been hiding away in Scotland, working as a forensics lecturer. Read Raven’s review here

Jelieve No One (Simms/Fennimore Book #2)

Detective Chief Inspector Kate Simms is on placement in the United States with St Louis PD, reviewing cold cases, sharing expertise. Forensic expert Professor Nick Fennimore follows her, keen to pick up where they left off after their last investigation. But Simms came to the US to escape the fallout from that case – the last thing she needs is Fennimore complicating her life. Read Raven’s review here

Enter The Crime Vault competition for a chance to win all three books in the Fennimore & Simms series. (Ends 30th November)

(With thanks to Corsair for the ARC)

Missed a stop? Check out the tour at these excellent sites:

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Mark Hill- The Two O’Clock Boy

51pljceuoulOne night changed their lives…
Thirty years ago, the Longacre Children’s Home stood on a London street where once-grand Victorian homes lay derelict. There its children lived in terror of Gordon Tallis, the home’s manager.

Cries in the fire and smoke…
Then Connor Laird arrived: a frighteningly intense boy who quickly became Tallis’ favourite criminal helper. Soon after, destruction befell the Longacre, and the facts of that night have lain buried . . . until today.

A truth both must hide…
Now, a mysterious figure, the Two O’Clock Boy, is killing all who grew up there, one by one. DI Ray Drake will do whatever it take to stop the murders – but he will go even further to cover up the truth…

Casting aside his nom de plume of Crime Thriller Fella, former blogger, Mark Hill marches stridently onto the crime fiction scene with a debut that is compelling and intriguing, and perhaps more importantly a damn good read.  With one of the most ominous and chilling openings that I have encountered this year, as the story draws you in, you would be forgiven for thinking that this would then appear to be a pretty standard London set police procedural. But you’d be wrong. Oh yes, and here’s why…

There is a pernicious killer at work in old London town with the self-styled monicker of The Two O’Clock Boy, the reasons for which are gradually unfurled in a real smoke and mirrors tale of childhood abuse, combined with slick police procedural. With its intertwining timelines, depicting the less than savoury goings on at a children’s home some years previously, and the spotlight on DI Ray Drake and his team to solve the current murders, the links between the past and Drake’s own personal history are neatly threaded together. With some degree of frustration, this is one of those books that thwarts the reviewer at every turn, without stepping in a big pile of spoilers, but suffice to say Drake proves an interesting and damaged conduit between past and present, and his character is never less than intriguing and utterly instrumental to this reader’s enjoyment of the book. The plotting is consistently superb, tinged with a real darkness that unsettles and disturbs throughout, and the pacing and balance between the two gradually revealed interconnected time periods is beautifully weighted.

Likewise, the characterisation of both the police protagonists, and the characters connected to the children’s home, both in the past and present is assuredly done. Hill captures not only the naivety, false bravery, and emotional fragility of the children’s personalities, but how this shapes and moulds them and their experiences on reaching adulthood. It’s sensitively and realistically handled, despite the darkness of his central plot, and I guarantee that when certain truths are revealed about this period in some of the protagonist’s lives, your sense of empathy will be roundly manipulated. As I have alluded to, the character of Drake is of tantamount importance to the whole plot, as is the multi-faceted nature of his personality that he presents to the world. I also liked his sidekick, DS Flick Crowley, whose exasperation with Drake, and some personal issues of her own, provide a bit more colour to the whole affair, and provide a strong partnership for future investigations.

So, pleased to report that The Two O’clock Boy delivers on so many levels, with emotional depth,  strong characters, and an effective and suspense-building use of contrasting timelines, to carry the plot along at a pleasing pace. The Raven recommends. Highly.

(With thanks to Sphere for the ARC)

Blog Tour- Doug Johnstone- Crash Land

41iatw0focl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Sitting in the departure lounge of Kirkwall Airport, Finn Sullivan just wants to get off Orkney. But then he meets the mysterious and dangerous Maddie Pierce, stepping in to save her from some unwanted attention, and his life is changed forever…

I must confess that when I initially read the book description, my first thought was, ‘ well, this doesn’t sound like a Doug Johnstone book to me,’ having been completely blown away by the sensitivity and raw emotion of his previous book The Jump . However,  the Raven’s slightly ruffled feathers were quickly smoothed, as after the initial seat-of-your-pants scenes of an air crash in the seemingly tranquil peace of Orkney,  my equanimity was quickly restored…

Drawing on my earlier comment, I think what Crash Land demonstrates so effectively is the flexibility of Johnstone as a writer. With his main protagonists of Finn and Maddie, and the intensity of the relationship that builds between them as events unfurl, Johnstone confidently, and most importantly believably, draws together two people so defined by their differences of experience into a claustrophobic and tense relationship. Finn is a naïve, slightly gauche young man, who, as is the wont of young men generally, is initially attracted to Maddie on a primal level. Maddie, older, experienced and obviously a woman carrying a burden of emotional torment, realises the usefulness of this  young man’s infatuation with her, as her plans for escape from Orkney are thwarted. Johnstone carefully builds up this symbiosis between them, as Finn finds himself in the unwelcome spotlight of the police and the media, following the plane crash, and Maddie’s complicated emotional ties, and possible acts of violence come to light. Finn puts the reader through some emotional upheaval, at times being a sensitive young man, who was deeply affected by the death of his mother and attachment to his grandmother , and then being so boundlessly naïve you want to put him in a sack and shake him. I found Maddie an intriguing and mercurial character, who manipulates our feelings as a reader as much as she draws in the hapless Finn, proving there is much more to her than meets the eye…

The landscape of Orkney and the Scottish isles in general, has proved itself a rich hunting ground for many British crime authors, as its similarity to the bleak Scandinavian terrain affords ample opportunity for psychological exploration. Johnstone has obviously immersed himself fully in the unique topography and history of Orkney, as the clarity and authenticity of his depiction of the landscape, people and spiritual and mythical backdrop of the island shines through every description. I loved the evocation of the island’s history and the way it has shaped its hardy souls in terms of their stoicism and mental toughness, as the sea and elemental weather conditions rage around them. Johnstone confidently mirrors the bleakness and raw beauty of the island in the psychological travails of his protagonists, and the more nefarious activities that the remoteness of this location lends itself to. The descriptive element of this book is never less than perfect, and Johnstone uses it to its full effect.

With consummate skill Johnstone takes his reader from a high octane, emotionally charged opening, then slowing the pace radically to provide a thoughtful and intriguing exploration of the relationship between Finn and Maddie, and our changing perceptions of both. By weaving together these two elements so effectively, alongside the pitch perfect depiction of the mercurial nature of  Orkney itself , Crash Land ticked all the boxes for this reader, and proved a satisfying and engaging thriller. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with or continue to follow the tour at these excellent sites:

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A Deadly Trio- Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil, Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel, Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

1471984137455The chilling story of a young American woman in Rome, an aspiring actress, who- together with her brother- is implicated in a series of murders dating back to her childhood. She plays a deadly game, alternately intimate and distant, a cipher of unwholesome impulse, and erotic intrigue…

My, my, my, what a dark and sordid tale of jealousy, desire, and cold-blooded murder this proved to be… and I absolutely loved it. With a down-to-the-bone, spare prose style, so resonant of the American hardboiled noir tradition, and scenes that would not be out of place in a Fellini classic, The White Devil is quite simply perfect in its execution. As we become more deeply entwined with this ice-cold female narrator, Victoria, who slowly reveals her tangled and murderous early history, and the strange dynamics at play in her relationship with her brother Johnny, I began to fear more and more for the unsuspecting individuals whom they set in their sights. The book has the pace and sudden shock value of pure classic Hitchcock, and indeed there is a superb visual quality to Stansberry’s writing, as he leads us amongst the upper echelons of Italian society, the starry world of the movies, and the dimly lit and dangerous streets, that lay behind the glamourous façade of Rome.

In addition, Stansberry draws on themes of politics, religion, and money, drawing on the marked differences, and frames of reference, that Victoria and Johnny as Americans abroad harbour, sharply putting into focus their new world gaucheness, and drive to succeed at any cost,  both to themselves or others. I loved the style of Stansberry’s writing, both in its tautness, and, at times, supreme subtlety, and the eminently unlikeable cast of characters with their selfish intentions, or inherent stupidity, exposed as the dastardly Victoria and Johnny inveigle themselves into their world. Woe betide them…

Hardboiled noir to die for. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Molotov Editions for the ARC)

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Private investigator Danny Katz is trying to track down his former drug dealer. Ramón and his girlfriend Jenny have both vanished leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions. How come Ramón suddenly found himself in possession of the mother-load of drugs? And is Jenny really who she claims to be?

Katz’s investigation leads him to the darkest corners of Stockholm’s porn industry and once again his old addiction threatens to control him. Ultimately only one thing seems certain – someone is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Katz from discovering the brutal truth…

What begins as a seemingly ordinary crime heist novel, The Tunnel quickly evolves into a multi-layered and very enjoyable Sweden set thriller, driven by the archetypal social analysis, and strong characterisation that defines Scandinavian crime fiction. As the individual stories of its three main protagonists and friends, Jorma, a  career criminal, Katz, a reformed drug addict, and Eva, an emotionally troubled woman who works for the police, play out, Vallgren draws us into a sordid world of sex trafficking and violence.

For me, Vallgren’s portrayal of these three contrary, but nonetheless totally appealing characters, is the lynchpin for the enjoyment of the book, and I found myself utterly engaged with them throughout. There is a nice sense of balance in their characterisation as they are not all paragons of virtues, finding themselves susceptible to their own singular vices and desires, and with Katz in particular Vallgren is given the opportunity to explore Swedish society, and to draw on the Jewish roots of his character to spin the story off in another direction. The central plot is unsettling, bleak and exposes the seedy underbelly of drug addiction and the sex industry, and the manipulation of those who find themselves caught up in, or profiting from this nefarious trades. I also liked the ending that is not neatly tied up with a bow, but instead is quite bleak and uncertain. Vallgren is the closest writer I have found to Cilla and Rolf Bjorland (Spring Tide, Third Voice) who also specialise in social realism, and troubled-but-empathetic characters, and will now be hastily backtracking to read the first book by him, The Boy In The Shadows. A top Scandi-noir recommendation from me.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

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Set against Iceland’s volcanic hinterlands, four thirty-somethings from Reykjavik – the reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis – embark on an ambitious camping trip, their jeep packed with supplies.

Victims of the financial crisis, the purpose of the trip is to heal both professional and personal wounds, but the desolate landscape forces the group to reflect on the shattered lives they’ve left behind in the city. As their jeep hurtles through the barren land, an impenetrable fog descends, causing them to suddenly crash into a rural farmhouse.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the group discover that the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they ever return home?

With a nod to Halloween, felt it right to include The Ice Lands in this wee round-up. I would probably describe this as an existential version of The Blair Witch Project, mixed up with Lost with shades of On The Road. I must confess, that for large portions of the book, including the not the most easily comprehensible ending, I was rather confused at quite what the jiggins was going on. Suffused with the dark, bleak and completely terrifying landscape of rural Iceland, and the creepy inhabitants of a house that I’m fairly sure was not constructed of gingerbread, four unwitting, and not entirely likeable egotistic individuals find themselves privy to a nightmare experience. With enough schlock horror moments to keep you on the edge of the seat, and some not always welcome diversions into the world of scientific academia which were initially quite interesting and then waned, Bragi has constructed a unique blend of traditional shocker, and highbrow horror, that chills and perplexes in equal measure. I was dying throughout for these frankly annoying characters to reach grisly ends, but did they? That would be telling. As much as I was confused by some aspects of this tale, I did make it to the end, having had a sense of enjoyment, and frustration, in equal measure. I think overall I liked it, but at times it was just a little…how can I put this… too much up itself for a totally enjoyable reading experience. Sort of recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

 

 

Travels with the TBR #1-Samuel Bjork- I’m Travelling Alone, Helen Cadbury- To Catch A Rabbit, Owen Sheers-I Saw A Man

With the new frustration of a lengthy bus journey now extending my working day, I realised that this actually presents a great opportunity to catch up on some of the 150+ books in my to-be-read pile, alongside new releases. Here are the first three books in a regular series of posts…

bjorkWhen the body of a young girl is found hanging from a tree, the only clue the police have is an airline tag around her neck. It reads ‘I’m travelling alone’. In response, police investigator Holger Munch is immediately charged with assembling a special homicide unit. But to complete the team, he must track down his former partner, Mia Krüger – a brilliant but troubled detective – who has retreated to a solitary island with plans to kill herself. Reviewing the file, Mia finds something new – a thin line carved into the dead girl’s fingernail: the number 1. She knows that this is only the beginning. To save other children from the same fate, she must find a way to cast aside her own demons and stop this murderer from becoming a serial killer…

To be honest, I usually have a slight aversion to thrillers that are constructed so whole-heartedly on the use of coincidence, and moments of sheer implausibility but I’m Travelling Alone managed effectively to keep me in its thrall from start to finish, despite my reservations…

Starting with the characterisation of detective Mia Kruger, the archetypal troubled individual, seemingly intent on ending her life and existing on a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs, that would keep most stout-hearted folks from functioning on any kind of level, she proves herself an empathetic and multi-faceted character. Having so roundly criticised other authors for using this foil before, Kruger’s journey from intense psychological bleakness to her reluctant involvement in a particularly dark murder investigation,  Bjork manages to overcome the reader’s initial scepticism regarding her character, and she was, for me, the reason to keep those pages turning. Likewise, her boss, the shuffling and put-upon Holger Munch, with his nefarious familial problems, conforms to some stereotypical character traits, and the coincidence of him being the father of a six-year old daughter, the age of the murder victims, did toy with the credibility of the reader too. However, for the necessity of the final denouement of the plot, it was understandable that Bjork had to travel this path, and Munch and Kruger, prove themselves an effective team despite their vastly different approaches to their work, and this particular investigation.

I thought the central murder investigation with the trademark Scandinavian darkness was well played out, drawing in themes of religious fanaticism, and I always enjoy a book that points the finger at the supposedly superior state of grace that accompanies those who hold religion dear. In the rural backwoods there are shown to be dark forces at work, leading to a pacey and gripping conclusion to what is a convoluted but nonetheless intriguing investigation for Munch and Kruger, despite a rather clumsy plot twist involving Kruger herself. I’m Travelling Alone is not without fault, but has enough hooks and tricks to hold its appeal throughout, and to entice this reader to read the next in the series. Recommended.

new-rabbitTwo young boys stumble on a dead prostitute. She’s on Sean Denton’s patch. As Doncaster’s youngest community support officer, he’s already way out of his depth, but soon he’s uncovering more than he’s supposed to know. Meanwhile Karen Friedman, professional mother of two, learns her brother has disappeared. She desperately needs to know he’s safe, but once she starts looking, she discovers unexpected things about her own needs and desires. Played out against a gritty landscape on the edge of a Northern town, Karen and Sean risk losing all they hold precious…

First of all, big kudos to Helen Cadbury, for introducing us in to the world of the Police Community Support Officer, a role oft neglected in the consciousness of not only the British public, but also in the world of crime writing. I immediately liked Sean Denton, with his charming mix of at times wide-eyed innocence, underscored by his strong sense of morality and his determination to see justice served for the victim. This combination of traits that Cadbury instils in his character is absolutely central to the manipulation of the reader’s empathies throughout, and also gives Cadbury scope to show how far Denton progresses professionally in the course of this thorny and sensitive investigation. I also liked the comparison we see in Denton’s character between his professionalism and intuitiveness when donning the uniform, and his hesitant and quite frankly clumsy efforts in matters of the heart. By so effectively balancing these two sides of her central protagonist, you feel as a reader a truthfulness and authenticity to the character, which enhances your reading pleasure. Similarly with the character of Karen Friedman, we encounter a woman who is doggedly searching for answers regarding her brother’s disappearance, and Cadbury takes time to push the boundaries of Karen’s character, drawing her into a criminal world, and testing her resolve as a professional, working at a migrant’s advice centre, and as a wife and mother. Cadbury really puts Karen through the wringer, but never to the point of incredulity, and I found her a particularly likeable character. Her husband, though, has less to recommend him…snake in the grass.

Drawing on the sensitive subject of immigration in the UK , Cadbury keeps a balance and fairness in her portrayal of this subject throughout, without the mealy-mouthed hand-wringing liberalism, that tends to afflict modern British fiction. Cadbury presents the desperation and exploitation of the immigrant community with an almost detached air of realism, that makes their plight all the more affecting, and allows her readers to be gently drawn into to the salient plot-lines that focus on this, while keeping solidly within the bounds of objectivity. This thought-provoking, and extremely well delineated plot carries the book along to a gripping conclusion, with many moments of tension along its way.

Hence, To Catch A Rabbit neatly straddles the bounds of crime thriller and police procedural punctuated by the  feel of contemporary social fiction. Am already eyeing up the second instalment, Bones In The Nest, in my to-be-read pile. Highly recommended.

sheersAfter the sudden loss of his wife, Michael Turner moves to London to start again. Living on a quiet street in Hampstead, he develops a close bond with the Nelson family next door: Josh, Samantha and their two young daughters. The friendship at first seems to offer the prospect of healing, but then a devastating event changes all their lives, and Michael finds himself bearing the burden of grief and a terrible secret.

Okay so not strictly speaking a crime book, but is billed to possess ‘a dark psychological edge’ and have heard comments glowingly positive, and exceedingly negative about this one. I will concede that  the first half of this book held me firmly in its tentacles, and flipping the action from the leafy London suburbs to heat scorched America and the military storyline, I Saw A Man was shaping up to be a terrific read. I was genuinely drawn into the grief-filled world of Michael, and the pernicious military action that had caused his wife’s death. I was also enjoying the intriguing build up of tension as Michael made his way through a neighbour’s house one hot summer’s day, and had even mange to overcome my working class aversion to posh people who do fencing, and my dislike of the name Josh.  And then within two pages it lost me. Totally. With one of the weakest plot contrivances I have encountered for many a year, this formerly well-written and engaging book, waved goodbye to the Raven, as the writing became overwhelmingly overwritten, and any previously held empathy disappeared in a flurry of florid prose. I read the last two chapters to confirm my suspicions at how this tortured storyline would play out. And it did. Oh dear…

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

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